Corkage for Dummies

By Lettie Teague

RULE #1: Call the restaurant.
I’d never just show up with my bottle, unannounced. Although this sounds obvious, it’s often ignored. Rajat Parr, the sommelier at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor, has had customers arrive with as many as eight bottles. (Think of all that glassware!)

RULE #2: Inquire about the fee.
Make it known you’re not looking to get something for free. In Manhattan corkage averages $15 to $20 a bottle, more at posh places like Union Pacific ($30) and Jean Georges ($85, a bargain compared to its wine prices). In any case, corkage doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll come away cheaply; a few friends of mine brought several great Burgundies to New York’s Chanterelle and ended up spending over $400 in corkage alone. But everyone was happy; the restaurant let them drink their wines and they got to enjoy them with some pretty spectacular food.

Outside New York, corkage is more accepted, though not always cheaper. In Napa Valley, it can range from $15 a bottle (Meadowood Resort) to $50 (The French Laundry). Fees seem lowest in San Francisco and Los Angeles… on average, $10 to $12. Some restaurants even hold corkage-free days. On Sundays, La Cachette in Los Angeles allows customers to bring in as many wines as they want. While this has proven incredibly popular, La Cachette’s proprietor, Jean-François Meteigner, says it hasn’t hurt his wine sales the rest of the week. However, he admits to being baffled by the idea: “As a Frenchman, I really don’t understand why you would bring your own wine to a restaurant in the first place.”

RULE #3: Never bring a cheap wine.
Or at least not one that costs less than the least expensive bottle on the list. My favorite (sommelier-less) Indian restaurant, the Bengal Tiger in White Plains, New York, has a corkage policy that addresses this nicely: It charges $15… the same as its least expensive wine. Some restaurants request that customers only bring wines that aren’t on their lists. However, as Joseph Miglione, the sommelier at Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle, has discovered, this directive can backfire. He’s had diners arrive with screw-top magnums and bottles with grocery-store tags still stuck to the sides. Yet, as Miglione was forced to admit, not one of these was on his list.

Miglione, however, is adamant about how much he loves people who bring great wines… a sentiment echoed by every sommelier I spoke to. Fred Price of Union Pacific agrees, noting, “It’s an honor.”

RULE #4: Always offer the sommelier a taste.
He or she may or may not accept (they always do when I’m with The Collector) but it’s a sign of respect and a show of camaraderie. Since you’ve shunned the sommelier’s selections in favor of your own, it’s the least you can do. Rajat Parr ruefully recalls the time when “Someone brought in a La Tâche and didn’t offer me a taste.”

RULE #5: Buy at least one bottle, preferably one for every bottle you bring.
Granted, in some places it’s impossible (my favorite Chinese restaurant does its beverage business exclusively in Budweiser), but at places that do have a list you like (or where you want to be welcomed again) you should do so. You’ll look like a sport and you might even find the corkage waived, as Cole’s Chop House in Napa does.